The bloggers at The Book Smugglers reviewed The Princess Curse the same week I did, and said this was their favorite Twelve Dancing Princesses retelling. I’ve got one more retelling on hold – also mentioned in their post – and then I’ll be out, unless anyone has any further retellings they want me to read.
Wildwood Dancing by Juliet Marillier I’m including this book in my series on The Twelve Dancing Princesses, though it doesn’t have all the parts of that story and does have bits of a good many others put in. The story is told by Jena, the second oldest of five sisters aged sixteen to five. They live with their merchant father in an old castle, Piscul Dracului, in Transylvania. It’s nominally fifteenth century, but though I didn’t encounter any glaring errors in the time, the place setting felt much stronger than the time setting to me. Early on, Jena tells us about a formative event in her life, when she and her two older cousins, Costi and Cezar, were playing in the wood. They decided to be King of the Lake, King of the Land and Queen of the Forest. It was supposed to be just a game, but then Drăguţa, the legendary witch of the woods, appeared, offering to grant them their wishes for real. Costi drowned in the lake that day, and neither Cezar nor Jena has been the same since. Already we can tell that this is a much darker retelling than many.
The true story takes place ten years later. Jena’s faithful companion is a pet frog, Gogu, who rides on her shoulder and talks directly into her mind, where no one but she can hear him. Every month on the full moon, she and her sisters put on their finest clothes, hold their hands up to make a star with the shadows on the wall, and follow a secret passage to the Wildwood. This both is and is not the same woods outside their castle, but here they meet with the fairy folk – trolls and dwarves and all sort of people. They dance and talk; scholarly Paula mostly spends the time discussing arcane magical subjects with like-minded folk – and go back home in the morning refreshed by the contact with beauty and magic, though they know enough to be very careful in the magical realm.
This has been their life, and they have loved it, but things are changing. Their mother died long ago, and their father is in poor health. He goes off to the coast in hopes that the change of climate will heal him, leaving the girls and a pair of aging retainers in charge of the castle and surrounding lands. Money will be tight and finding enough manpower difficult, but Jena, who has been learning accounting at her father’s side her whole life, is determined to do a good job running the family business. Cousin Cezar starts visiting more and more often. He soon takes their money box and tells Jena that he will run both their personal and business finances. When the girls go to their Wildwood Dance that month, there is a group of Night People there, the pale people rumored to drink blood. Tati falls in love with one, and increasingly withdraws from the outside world. Both of these are frightening, and of course things go downhill from there. What amazed me about the writing was that even though there were vampires – and they were scary and threatening – the part that gave me insomnia was Cezar taking over the girls’ lives, saying he was doing it out of love for them while clearly doing it for the love of power. He was a real abusive human, not a fairy-tale villain, and that made him terrifying. Though I’m not a horror fan myself, this is what my husband says of the best of Clive Barker’s writing: there might be supernatural horrors galore, but nothing is scarier than a human gone bad.
When one of the Night People kills a village girl the same age as Jena, she feels responsible. Cezar, meanwhile, takes it as a sign that the Wildwood is encroaching too far on their lives. He determines to wipe out all of the Wildwood folk, by chopping down the entire forest if necessary. He starts nightly hunts with bands of villagers through the forest. Even though these roving bands make the monthly walk through the night forest more dangerous, Jena is determined to do whatever it takes to save both her sister and the Wildwood. The leader of the Night People has promised to give her answers, but can she trust him even that far? Her activities are not unnoticed by Cezar, who decides that the girls must be in league with the Night People, and who decides he will lock them in their rooms with a man to follow them if they won’t talk.
The question that Twelve Dancing Princess novels must answer is why the girls do it. This novel approaches the whole story inside-out from the usual telling, and so it’s clear from the beginning that the girls go every month because the Wildwood is the place they feel most at home. Instead, Wildwood Dancing is a quest for independence and self-determination, for a way to find in the real world the fulfillment they find in the Wildwood. Both the human and the magical characters feel particularly real. It might be a little scarier than I usually like my fairy tale retellings, but it was definitely beautifully done, with strong characters in a world of humans and magic both beautiful and terrifying.